MOVIE: UNCLE FRANK
STARRING: SOPHIA LILLIS, PAUL BETTANY, PETER MACDISSI, STEVE ZAHN, JUDY GREER, MARGO MARTINDALE, STEPHEN ROOT
DIRECTED BY: ALAN BALL
AMovieGuy.com’s RATING: 2 ½ STARS (Out of 4)
When I watch movies involving members of the LGBTQ community, living their lives in fear from the judgment of others, I often think back to the AA group on the Northwest side of Chicago, which I frequently attended. Many of the men and women at these meetings were also members of the LGBTQ community and from the beginning they accepted me, comforted me, listened to my problems, and were able to see me for who I am. They helped me get sober. I often wished that all people would be as kind and generous as the various people I met. In Alan Ball’s film, Uncle Frank, it is the story of a conservative family, growing up in South Carolina, with soon to be college student Beth (Sophia Lillis) making a connection with her Uncle Frank (Paul Bettany). He’s a New York university professor, and nothing like the rest of his family. He’s a gay man, interested in literature, jazz music, and living his life away from the judgement of his unaccepting relatives. It is the connection with Beth that brings him face to face with the family divide and confronting some of his biggest life fears. Uncle Frank has just enough drama depth, a strong performance form Bettany, and empathy for the LGBTQ community to make it a well intentioned experience.
What’s interesting about Uncle Frank is that it has a big cast of actors, including Stephen Root, Margo Martindale, Steve Zahn, and Judy Greer. But you almost see them as the side dishes of the meal, where Alan Ball writes and directs a story of two planets. On planet one, you have Beth and Frank, the members of the family escaping from home. Frank has succeeded, living in Manhattan, and keeping his boyfriend Wally (Peter Macdissi) a secret for as long as he can. Whenever Beth saw Frank, she was interested in him, the things he likes, living in the city, but with her attending NYU her freshman year, Frank can no longer hide his true self. This is a side that Beth never judges, and the two connect over writing and the ability to be themselves. On planet two is the family back home, a judgemental group, smaller minded, but intimidated by Daddy Mac (Root), but when he passes away, Frank is conflicted with the loss of someone who won’t even acknowledge him in his will.
You would think with a great cast of actors that Uncle Frank would be enough to fill the screen with these characters. The problem, however, is that the narrative is not interesting enough. Instead of having the drama work, the action takes to the road, after Daddy Mac passes away and now the conflict becomes Frank facing his past traumas at the funeral. This also involves brining Wally along, while Beth observes in the back, with a mixture of laughs and deep conversations. The direction is a sunlit road, stopping at small motels, with flashbacks to the past, and an excellent performance from Bettany. It’s the work from the Age of Ultron actor that raises this review above negative. To put it lightly, his acting is some of his best. Emotional, introspective, and elegant. Although Ball’s script has a nice brevity to it, keeping the theatrics at a simmer, but without the acting of Bettany, Uncle Frank would be a waste.
Another interesting part about a movie such as Uncle Frank is how it feels a bit outdated as well. Not that the struggles for the LGBTQ community are not always constant. It does not seem possible to rid the world of all bigots, but the conflict of acceptance feels as only a part of the problem and now it is more on studios having the “courage” to expand, tell more stories involving transgender, gay or lesbian stories, about people living their lives, being human, and showing to the world that we are all similar. Movies such as The Garden Left Behind, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and A Fantastic Women continue that trend, but it must be sustained, not reverted back to old school stories such as Uncle Frank.
The final result is that Uncle Frank is harmless. The performance from Bettany is the reason to see it and if it was possible I would hope an Oscar nomination was there for him. Sophia Lillis is also charming, although her character sinks too much to the background, when the narrative of Frank and Wally becomes the focus of a loving relationship, during a time where many would not accept. Uncle Frank looks good, has a nice enough script from Alan Ball, and a collective cast that makes it tolerable. It’s a friendly visit from Uncle Frank.
UNCLE FRANK PREMIERES ON AMAZON PRIME NOVEMBER 25TH.
2 ½ STARS
Written by: Leo Brady